Working the docks, you ran into people from all over the world. Guys came in on ships from Europe, from Asia, from Africa, and over time you learned a few things about the typical character of the sailors from each place.
One rule that a guy learned pretty quick was that if you could avoid it, you didn't drink with the British.
The Limeys weren't the heaviest drinkers, that title probably went to the Russians, but they were definitely the worst drinkers. See, while the Russians drank quietly in their own berths and boarding houses and didn't bother anybody, the Brits wanted to go out and binge and get in fights with the locals. They'd have too much too fast, and somebody usually ended up getting carted off to the emergency room.
The kicker was, they generally spent a lot of money while they were being rowdy pains in everyone's ass, so Dolores wasn't keen to throw them out on principle. The guys didn't blame her for it, no one could afford to turn down income like that, but it meant having to put up with a bunch of jumped up douchebags who couldn't handle their liquor as well as they thought and thought they were better than everyone.
So it stood to reason that Nick was feeling kinda tense when a group of British Merchant Navy guys off the boat out of Southampton came into the bar one Friday night. It had been a tough enough week as it was, not enough shifts to go around, as usual, and Ashley had come down with a stomach bug which meant Aimee hadn't been working for a few days either. Between them there'd barely been enough to get by, and Nick thought he could really do without the headache that night.
It was a minor blessing that while they were loud, yeah, and kind of obnoxious - taking control of the jukebox and playing a bunch of shit Nick hadn't even realised was on there, making a bunch of jokes that none of the regular guys understood - they seemed to be holding off on actually getting violent tonight. In fact the drunker they got, the happier and louder they seemed to get, sending the regulars off into a corner to talk among themselves and have their post-shift beers and shots in peace.
Well, most of them anyway.
While the bulk of the regulars were just accepting the incomers as a necessary evil, Ziggy was in his absolute element. With the other checkers and stevedores not actively wanting anything to do with their 'guests', Ziggy had apparently decided to appoint himself as the local guide and spokesperson, playing up to the crowd, and whether they were laughing at him or with him, the Brits seemed to think he was hilarious.
Every time Nick glanced over, Ziggy was surrounded by two or three of the Brits, holding court and gesticulating expressively, a fresh glass of beer pressed into his hand every time he finished the one he was drinking. One of the guys, a tall, blond, recruitment poster looking asshole with an honest to god anchor tattooed on his arm, seemed to be practically glued to Ziggy's side, a grin plastered to his face.
A rough voice, with an accent Nick couldn't place beyond 'not classy, but also not Cockney', drifted over from the group.
"Zig, mate, yer a fookin' ledge you are."
Ziggy sounded half confused in his response "That's good, right?"
And a smoother voice, possibly blondie, responded. "Yeah, yeah it's really good..."
Nick laughed softly to himself. It was stupid, but it was kind of nice to see Ziggy surrounded by people who didn't seem to just be grudgingly tolerating him. People who weren't sick of his jokes and his voice and everything else about him. Nick still enjoyed spending time with him, most of the time, the way you do with people you've known your whole life, who make you feel like you're both still snot nosed kids with no worries in life. But while Nick had found his place with the other dockworkers, slotted into it like a cog in a machine, Zig was always more of a square peg in a round hole, and one who stubbornly refused to sand down his own edges at that. He hadn't made any friends since everyone went their separate ways after high school, so if he wanted to play king of the docks with a bunch of Limeys who didn't know any better then good luck to him.
Nick stayed over with the rest of the dockworkers, pitching in for rounds and quietly shooting the shit amongst themselves, until one by one they all started to stagger off into the night. Back to their homes and their wives or maybe just more booze at home in cheap liquor store bottles. As the group dwindled, Nick picked up his coat from where he'd draped it over the back of a chair, and shrugged it on, scanning the room to find Ziggy. It was an unspoken rule of theirs that if they came to the bar together, they left together too.
But looking around the room, Ziggy was nowhere to be seen.
Sighing in frustration, he made his way over to the side of the bar where a group of the Brits were still sat, apparently settled in to be drinking till daylight. He tapped the shoulder of a large, redheaded guy, who he'd seen as part of Ziggy's little flock.
"You seen Ziggy?"
The guy blinked a little blearily at him, his nose wrinkled.
"Whatchu want him for?"
"I'm his cousin," he said, speaking with more patience than he really had, "I gotta make sure he gets home okay, you see where he went?"
The guy sniffed, and took a long swig from his beer.
"Yeah mate, I think he went out for a fag with Dave."
Nick's hackles raised.
"He went for a fuckin' what?"
The guy looked at him like he was a moron.
"A fag, you know, a smoke," he mimed smoking a cigarette, "Told Dave he didn't need to go out but, force of habit innit? Like goin' behind the bike sheds."
A stocky, balding man with a Scottish accent snorted with laughter next to them.
"Tha's not all Big Dave does behind bike sheds…"
The redhead jostled his elbow.
"Fuck off, Jimmy."
"Ah'm just sayin', yer wee cousin wants to watch hisself, pal."
That got him a firmer shove as he dissolved into laughter. The redhead turned back to Nick and made a dismissive gesture with his beer bottle.
"Don't listen to him mate, he's talkin' out his arse. They've just gone out for a smoke, be back in a bit."
Nick frowned with distaste at the Scottish guy, and looked towards the back exit of the bar, an apprehensive feeling settling in his gut. He thanked the redheaded guy, clapping him on the arm before making his way outside, cursing under his breath as the cold air hit him like a slap in the face and undid whatever warm buzz the beer he'd drank had given him.
There was no one around right outside the door, but he could hear sounds from around the corner over the low whistle of the wind off the harbor.
The dull clang of something hitting metal, hushed whispers, and a familiar drunken laugh.
Tugging his coat around himself, Nick rounded the corner, and immediately froze in his tracks.
Ziggy was sat on top of a trash can, feet dangling a foot off the ground and boot heels thudding against the rusted metal. The tall blond guy from before, Dave apparently, Ziggy's biggest fan, was stood between his parted knees, one hand on Ziggy's waist, the other cupping his jaw…
Tipping his head back so he could stick his tongue down Ziggy's throat.
Nick froze, body immobilized for a moment by shock and a sort of sickened fascination as his brain tried to process what it was seeing - that jammed signal feeling you get when you see something you both want to stop and get well away from. Until he saw Ziggy curl his hand around the back of Dave's neck, one knee drawing up so his boot pressed into the back of his thigh…
"Oh hell no..."
He grabbed the back of Dave's collar and dragged him back bodily, wrenching him out of Ziggy's grasp before either had time to react and stop him. A sound that he had a sinking feeling was originally a groan became a strangled yelp as Ziggy nearly toppled sideways, unbalanced, and both of the 'lovebirds' started yelling at him.
"Nicky, what the hell man?!"
"Ay, what the fuck's your problem?!"
Nick kept a grip on Dave's collar, hand tightening like he wanted to strangle him with it.
"My problem is you macking on my fucking cousin, asshole!"
"Are you fucking serious? We're both adults, we can do what we want..."
"Fucking queer ass British fuckwads, you think everyone who's friendly is hitting on you?" he used his grip on him to give him a shake, "Did he get his dick out in there? Cause he does that shit all the time, it ain't a come on, he's just a fuckin' idiot."
Ziggy made an offended squawking sound, while Dave shook himself free of Nick's grasp and squared up to him, pointing a finger in his face.
"Don't you call him an idiot!"
Nick smacked his hand aside and shoved him back.
"Don't tell me what to call him!"
Before they could do much more than posture at each other, Ziggy sprung up from his position spreadeagled on the trashcan, and pushed between them, a hand on either man's chest, prizing them apart.
"Cut it out! Both o' you!"
Nick tried to sidestep Ziggy, only for him to grip hold of his sleeve, telling him to chill the fuck out. Dave meanwhile put his hands up, taking a step back out of Nick's reach.
"Look, I didn't come here to fight, I'm not starting something with you," he turned to Ziggy with a regretful little smile, "I'm sorry Zig, I'll see you around..."
"Dave..." Ziggy reached out towards Dave's retreating back with a helpless, defeated look, and as he watched him disappear back into the bar, he let out a frustrated growling noise and kicked viciously at the trashcan. "Son of a bitch!" His face was flushed, his eyes dark and half glazed even as they were flashing furiously, and Jesus Nick wished he could pretend that was just from the alcohol. Pretend he couldn't see how his shirt was untucked, his hair was all finger-mussed and how his mouth was all red and swollen.
Nick ran his hands over his face, taking a deep breath of cold night air as he paced back and forth, trying to get a hold of himself.
"Jesus, Zig, what the fuck were you thinking?" he said, voice half choked "This what's been wrong with you this whole time? You're fucking gay?"
A flash of fear crossed Ziggy's face, quickly replaced by anger.
"Fuck you, I ain't fucking gay!" he shoved Nick in the chest, not actually moving him at all and looking even more angry and hurt by the very attempt, "I been with girls before, you know that…"
None of them more than once though, none of them what you'd call girlfriends. By the time Nick was Ziggy's age he'd been with Aimee for four years and they'd had Ashley on the way.
"Then what the fuck was that? Fucking Limey cocksucker with his hands all over you and you just lettin' him…"
Oh but he'd not just been 'letting' him, had he. Not with how he'd been wrapping himself around the guy, that bright little laugh Nick had heard coming around the corner… He wasn't even sure he could put it down to Ziggy being an attention seeking little show off.
Ziggy shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, face screwed up in a petulant pout, looking like he didn't know whether to shrink back or go on the defensive. Nick had a sick, sneaking suspicion that if anyone else had confronted him, the defensiveness would have won out no question and turned into that snappy, rat dog aggression he'd seen from Ziggy so many times, and the stupid little shit would have gotten his ass kicked.
Another soft clang of metal as Ziggy kicked at the trash can again, more gently this time, a childish sort of gesture, before he lifted his chin and locked eyes with Nick, a feverish defiance in his gaze.
"Yeah so… So maybe I like both, what's so wrong with that?"
Nick couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"Are you fucking kidding me? You gotta be fucking brain dead you don't know what's wrong with that…" he clenched his fists, barely resisting the urge to literally smack some sense into Ziggy, and settled for pressing his hands against his own temples.
"What if it hadn't been me that found you two, huh? What if it'd been one of the guys? Even if you got lucky…" he pointedly ignored Ziggy muttering something about how he'd been about to get lucky, raising his voice to cut him off, "Even if, by some fucking miracle they didn't decide to beat the shit outta both of you, you think they wouldn't have told Uncle Frank?"
Ziggy's eyes widened at that.
"You ain't gonna tell him are you?"
"No, I'm not gonna tell him, it'd break his goddamn heart... But Jesus fucking Christ, Zig you can't pull this shit again. I'm not always gonna be around to cover for you and you're gonna get yourself fucking killed."
Ziggy rolled his eyes, which was a full head and shoulders type of gesture from him, and threw a hand into the air.
"How come you're acting like I'm the one that's done something wrong, huh? Why you putting it all on me? Can't you just be pissed at the guys for making it so's a guy can't go off with whoever he wants to?"
Nick stepped up and jabbed him in the chest, voice hard through half clenched teeth.
"'Cause if it was anyone other than you I'd caught out here, and one of the guys had been with me, I don't know that I wouldn't'a done exactly the same as them."
He turned away from Ziggy then, not wanting to face how white his cousin's face had suddenly gone. How small, and young, and scared he suddenly looked.
"Look, you're my family, man... and you know I love you, I'd fight anyone for you, but I'm not gonna pretend that shit doesn't make me sick to my stomach. You like girls too? Maybe you oughta stick to them. Get over this fucking phase or whatever it is."
They were both quiet for a long moment. It occurred to Nick that this was possibly the longest he'd ever got Ziggy to shut up, and it would have been funny if he didn't feel like absolute dogshit for doing it.
"I just don't want you getting hurt," he muttered eventually, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and fumbling with it.
Ziggy snorted bitterly.
"Yeah, sure you don't."
"Whatever man just leave me the fuck alone."
He let Ziggy shove past him as he stormed off, not back to the bar, but off in the direction of home.
"You don't want me to walk you back?" he called after him, and got flipped the bird over Ziggy's shoulder for his trouble.
A few minutes of angry smoking and yes, giving the fucking trash can a kick of his own, found Nick heading back into the bar determined to somehow make this shit right. He wasn't sure who he was most mad at. Himself, Ziggy, fucking Dave...
But he couldn't leave things the way they were.
He dug in his pockets, eventually finding a receipt from the last time he bought cigarettes and a bag of chips from the corner store, and grabbed a waxy black pencil from next to the phone on the back wall. He looked over towards the bar itself, and saw that while most of the Brits had by this point either made themselves scarce or fallen asleep over tables, Dave - big, blond, cousin-molesting son of a fucking bitch Dave - was sat at the bar looking sorry for himself. Pining over fucking Ziggy of all people. Bratty pain in the ass Ziggy, with his half assed facial hair and his stupid floppy haircut and who smelled of cheap cigarettes and too much Drakkar Noir...
He scribbled down a number on the receipt, and steeled himself by ordering one more beer from Dolores before going over.
"Look... it's Dave, right?"
Dave lifted his head, looking him up and down as his morose look morphed into a wary one.
Nick pulled up a bar stool and sat down next to him, glancing around to make sure they weren't being watched too closely.
"Okay, Dave, Ziggy's gone home, I don't know if he gave you his number or not, but here," he thrust the receipt at him, "Give him a call. But, I don't wanna see or hear any of it, alright? And none of the guys from in here can see you either if you know what's good for you."
Dave gave him an incredulous look, and gingerly took the paper from him, a flicker of a smile crossing his face as he read over the name and number.
"You're sure you want to give me this?"
"No. But he'd want you to have it so..." Nick shrugged, attempting to seem nonchalant even as his guts twisted. This things he did for his dumbass little cousin. "Just so's you know, you hurt him and I'll fucking kill you. You got that?"
"Yeah I get the message, and I wouldn't anyway."
He got a look on his face then that Nick had to turn away from. There were things he could deal with, and a six foot sailor looking all loved up and half horny while thinking about Ziggy was not one of them. He drained his beer quickly, and slammed it down on the bar, muttering a hurried goodbye before settling his tab and striding out into the night.
Nick didn't see much of Ziggy the next day. He saw from the time sheet that he'd clocked in early, but their paths didn't cross until lunch break, when Nick was leaning against the railings overlooking the water, and Ziggy sauntered over to him with his hands in his pockets. He slugged Nick in the arm and leaned against the railing next to him, a smug little smile playing at the corners of his lips.
"Thanks for giving Dave my number."
Nick sniffed and rubbed at his nose, staring out over the water.
"Yeah well, you threw such a bitch fit about it..." he swallowed a lump that had formed in his throat, not quite meeting Ziggy's eyes, "I ain't gonna pretend I get it, or that I like it, but... if it makes you happy and, you know, you stay outta trouble, who am I to try and stop you."
Ziggy actually looked touched for a moment, and nudged Nick with his elbow.
"Thanks, man... I appreciate it, you know."
Of course he was incapable of being emotionally sincere for too long, and the little smile on his face shifted into something teasing and salacious.
"Not as much as I appreciated Dave inviting me back to his motel though."
Nick groaned in annoyance, pushing back from the railing.
"Ah Jesus, Zig don't tell me that! I am trying to be supportive here an' you are making that real difficult by making me picture you gettin' fucked in the ass."
Ziggy laughed, clearly delighted at getting a rise out of Nick, and turned around the lean back against the railing.
"Who says I was the one gettin' fucked, huh? I may not be tall but you know I'm big where it counts."
He thrust his hips forward, gripping himself through the front of his jeans and giving Nick an obnoxious, shit-eating grin that Nick had to suppress a laugh of his own at.
"That does it, I'm dropping you in the fucking harbor..."
He jokingly grabbed Ziggy around the waist, lifting him half off the ground while Ziggy kicked at him and grabbed hold of the rail for stability.
"Let go of me you asshole! This is a fucking hate crime now!"
But he was laughing the whole time, sound drifting on the cool fresh air, and mingling with the cries of the gulls over the ships.